Faccenda: Put the brakes on backseat driving

Alexandra Faccenda, Director of Web & Multimedia

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Driving a car with a dual brake set is an unnerving experience. You’re in the driver’s seat, with hands placed on the wheel and feet poised on the pedals. You’re cruising along, just letting the car coast, when suddenly an overbearing figure in the passenger seat slams down on his own special brake. Your world is sent to a screeching halt.

This was my experience twice a month in driving school with a rather heavy-footed instructor. I was eager to get my license and free myself of the dual brake set. But shortly after beginning life as a licensed driver, I realized that I hadn’t freed myself after all. I found myself in the grip of a new enemy: the backseat driver.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a “backseat driver” as “a person who gives unwanted advice or criticism, [especially] to the driver of a car.” Backseat drivers are the ones telling you how fast to drive and where to turn. Their unwanted and frequently unnecessary input can be annoying, frustrating and distracting for drivers. A 2018 study by Accident Advice Helpline polled 2,000 drivers and revealed that 70 percent find backseat driving supremely annoying.

Backseat driving interests me because it is uniquely irritating. There is no appropriate word in the English language to describe the specific indignation I feel when a passenger tells me how to drive. I have always considered it disrespectful.

However, many people I know and love are guilty of backseat driving. I know they don’t mean any harm, so what’s behind their bossy behavior?

To get some more insight on the motivations of backseat control freaks, I asked six strategically chosen friends and family members if they engaged in backseat driving on an “occasional” basis. I figured they would be more likely to admit to partaking in an annoying habit occasionally rather than frequently.

Three of them didn’t confess, despite the fact that I had observed their history of unwanted driving commentary. To the remaining three, I asked a simple question: Why?

The first backseat driver, a middle-aged female family member whom I’ll call D., told me that she feels compelled to speak up when the driver is speeding or otherwise driving recklessly (e.g. taking turns too quickly or tailgating). She said that her urges to comment stem from lingering fear and anxiety after a nearly fatal car accident caused by her own reckless driving. D. explained that she doesn’t really care about controlling the vehicle for the sake of control. When someone is driving safely by D.’s standards, she is happy to be a mere passenger.

The second offender, a male Case Western Reserve University undergraduate student named A., gave me an unexpected answer: he thinks his commentary is helpful and valuable. Similarly to my female family member, A. told me that he only speaks up when he truly believes that the driver needs advice.

He admitted that while some drivers get angry at him for his unsolicited advice, others thank him for making valid criticisms. A. said that critiques of driving technique generally result in more angry reactions than do safety-related pointers, which drivers tended to receive well in his experience.

My third interviewee, a female undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh named L., told me that she often doesn’t realize she is backseat driving until her friends and family point it out. Like the action of driving, the habit has become somewhat automatic for her. L. said that she often speaks aloud to herself while driving to help her pay attention to the road. As a passenger, she tends to keep up the gentle chatter if her friends and family don’t call her out.

My investigation nudged me to rethink my anger and frustration with backseat drivers. None of my respondents had malicious motives underlying their annoying habit. All three believed they were being helpful and putting safety first.

These backseat drivers, at least, had good intentions. But it all echoes one of my favorite proverbs, which fits the situation a little too well: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  

Backseat driving is likely to cause more harm than good. Any distraction that takes attention away from the road increases the risk of a car accident. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 14 percent of all police-reported motor vehicle crashes in 2015 were “distraction-affected accidents.” In a 2011 survey conducted by esure car insurance of more than 1,000 drivers, 14 percent of the respondents reported having an accident or near miss caused directly by backseat driving.

To me, backseat driving is a more dangerous distraction than, say, a passenger changing the radio station or having a neutral conversation with the driver.

Compared to other distractions, I think backseat driving is more likely to provoke a negative emotional response, like anger or annoyance. The 2011 esure survey found that 51 percent of respondents have gotten angry while driving because of backseat commanders. Few could argue that an angry or annoyed state is ideal for driving. To make matters worse, the driver may even begin to squabble with his backseat counterpart and become more distracted.

There are some situations in which passenger commentary might be beneficial. I’m not denying that some drivers may have avoided accidents because of vocal passengers. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find statistics on the potential benefits of backseat driving.

Ultimately, backseat driving is acceptable when the driver is clearly missing things like road signs and stop lights. If you truly believe that everyone in the car is in danger, it’s important to speak up.

But if the driver is cruising safely, backseat driving is going to do more harm than good. Most of the time, the best practice is to hold your tongue.

Alexandra Faccenda is The Observer’s Director of Web and Multimedia. Her driving skills have room for improvement.